Texas Gov. Rick Perry kicked off his presidential campaign with an aggressive fundraising schedule that quickly made him a front-runner for the Republican nomination. But reports his campaign filed with the Federal Election Commission show that his ability to attract big money fell off steeply in September—perhaps not coincidentally—at the same time a series of rocky debate performances threatened his early front-runner status.
As Perry arrives on Friday in Washington for a private meeting with K Street insiders, the question is whether he can convince the smart money that his campaign is worth an investment. After three torrid weeks in August when he raised more than twice as much as his nearest fundraising rival, Perry has now fallen back into a much more competitive fundraising race with Mitt Romney. That is not good news for a candidate who, because of his late entry into the race, has a lot of catching up to do. Romney has raised $32 million since the beginning of this campaign cycle.
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In his first week on the trail, Perry raised more than $1.5 million from supporters who donated more than $200 each, the FEC reports show. He raised another $2 million the following week and a staggering $5.3 million during the week of Aug. 28, when buzz around his candidacy reached a peak.
Perry’s three worst fundraising weeks coincided with a series of weak debate performances. Perry's halting style, inability to hit talking points, and apparent fatigue toward the end of the debates sent his poll numbers plunging.
His fundraising followed suit. Perry raised $858,000 the week of the Sept. 7 debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. He raised $1.3 million the following week, when GOP presidential hopefuls debated in Tampa, Fla.
A spokeswoman for Perry said the governor is satisfied with his take. "Gov. Perry is very pleased with his fundraising efforts, raising more than $17 million in 49 days, a clear signal of the overwhelming support for his conservative record and vision to get America working again," said Catherine Frazier in an e-mail to National Journal. "The campaign actually on average brought in a higher amount per day after the debates than before."
During the same period, however, Perry reached, then lost, his brief lead in national and early-primary state polls. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey conducted Aug. 24-25 among 467 adults showed Perry leading former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney 27 percent to 14 percent. Another CNN/ORC poll Oct. 14-16 showed Romney’s support at 26 percent with former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain at 25 percent; in that survey, Perry fell to 13 percent. Perry has seen similar polling leads in Iowa and South Carolina fall as he struggles to find his footing as a candidate.
Back-to-back debates put pressure on every candidate's fundraising schedule. Romney, Perry, and Cain all raised less during debate weeks than during off weeks.
But Perry's September dropoff was so sudden and steep it suggests other factors were at work. To the Texas governor, putting his campaign on the right track is essential to attracting the high-dollar donors, upon which he most heavily relies, to fund his campaign. Of the $17 million he raised in his first full quarter as a candidate, $16.3 million, or 96 percent, came in chunks greater than $200—the level at which the FEC requires campaigns to list the names and occupations of donors.
By contrast, Romney received about 86 percent, or $12.1 million of the $14.1 million he raised in the last quarter, from big donors.
Other candidates with fewer ties to the Republican financial establishment rely more on small-dollar contributions. About half of Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s war chest was filled with donations of $200 or less. Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota relied mainly on small, grassroots contributions; the lion’s share, 72 percent, of all Bachmann’s contributions came in donations of $200 or less.
Romney's big-dollar donor program ramped up as the third quarter came to an end, according to his FEC reports. Romney raised more than $1 million per week from high-value contributors during the last three weeks of September, including a whopping $3.36 million during the final six days.
And, with the third-quarter clock ticking, Perry's fundraising rebounded as well. He raised $3.7 million during the final week of the quarter, his FEC reports show. His challenge now is to keep it up.